Today’s dose of Nic Cage is called Pay The Ghost and it’s not half bad, provided you have an affinity for moody low budget horror that doesn’t demand too much of its viewers and in turn isn’t expected to reinvent the genre wheel by those observing from their couches. It’s a neat title isn’t it, ‘Pay The Ghost’? My first thought is some scary loan shark nicknamed ‘Ghost’ that Nic has to do fork over his cheque’s to from movies like this. Jokes aside I can’t say it properly lives up to that name but it does it’s late 90’s SyFy Channel reminiscent best and works as a low key spooker with Cage in super relaxed concerned father/husband mode, a gear he always cruises well in. Nic plays a kindly college professor whose young son goes missing one halloween night at an NYC carnival. He and his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies, quite effective) are understandably devastated and while she mixes distraught with the desire to move on, he suspects some supernatural foul play and launches an investigation of his own. It turns out that many children have been going missing for years on Hallow’s Eve in this specific area and it isn’t just some coincidence, there’s a nasty pagan force dating back to colonial times that’s responsible. Now this is pretty standard horror stuff with a few decent jump scares, a cool esoteric showdown set in another realm that kinda reminded me of the “you shall not pass” Gandalf sequence and some nice stabs at mythology but I’ll also be honest and say that if I wasn’t working on this Cage treatise I probably never would have bothered. It’s ok though, I mean awesome character actor Stephen McHattie shows up as some bling homeless dude with dreadlocks and he’s always a plus. This is humdrum horror time killer but it’s not terrible, I’ll give it two Cages out of five.
It pains me to kick off this Nic Cage thing with an absolute hunk of coal in the stocking but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em and Between Worlds (2019) is an unrepentant fucking knob of a film and a scourging blight on everyone’s career involved. If you can imagine a sort of wonky, low budget swirling mix of Lolita, a daytime soap, a Eurotrash X Files episode, soft core porno, really badly done David Lynch homage and indie horror you might approximate this ill advised supernatural wannabe gothic pseudo erotic melodrama mess but it has to be seen to be believed. I read a review the other day stating that Nic Cage is in one of two modes these days, work and play. In work mode he’s a restrained, world weary hero and in play mode we get to see those famous bug eyed manic meltdowns. Well he’s here to play and then some in this one, playing dishevelled, homeless looking trucker Joe, a mess of a dude with a tragic past, a shabby baseball cap and a mullet that looks like it’s been through a microwave. He meets single mom Julie (Franka Potente) whose daughter (Penelope Mitchell) is inches away from death after a motorbike accident, so she needs his help (I won’t say how because it’s too ridiculous) in bringing her back from the spirit world. The plot kinda stops dead in its tracks here and meanders around as Cage and Potente get it on, then Cage and the daughter get it on, then they all just shuffle around mumbling, smoking weed and squabbling about nothing in particular. There’s an original score that is so ripped off from Twin Peaks that the filmmakers (hopefully out of guilt) decided to somehow convince Angelo Badalamenti to perform it, it’s neatly atmospheric and kind of hovers in the background but never feels like it belongs to this film. I can’t forgive this thing because as much as there’s a a solid idea behind it, first time director Maria Pulera squanders any quality on needless, gratuitous, trashy and completely unnecessary sex scenes that come one after another at a Caligula level of relentlessness and absolutely stifle any chance the film has at even being a serviceable thriller. Franka Potente is one of my favourite actresses and I’ve always felt she deserves bigger roles but if she’s going to be demeaned in bullshit like this then I’d say don’t even bother. It sucks because Cage and her actually have some half decent chemistry in the first act before it all turns to shit. Nic himself spends the first two thirds wandering about in a daze looking like he just crawled out of a dumpster and then the last third going completely mental, stammering like an invalid and making an embarrassment out of himself. I can’t even berate this thing enough because I could see it on everyone’s faces and feel it in the treacherous, sleazy direction that they all knew better and could have made this at least halfway interesting but they decided to knowingly crank out a gross, sexist, incomprehensible, worthless, unpleasant, excessively sordid waste of celluloid. Half a Cage out of five Cages and that’s being generous.
Here’s a fun idea for a running project I’ll do in the next few weeks: Lord knows I pay attention to B movies and that whole low budget world but when Nicolas Cage does them I sit up straight for some reason and am totally present. It’s funny because these days you have formerly high pedigree actors like Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino all doing these second tier flicks simply because of the narrowing gap between what’s released theatrically and what goes directly to VOD or streaming (also they probably have grandchildren to shunt through Yale). That provides galaxies of weird, off the wall content for big league, once A List tough guys to sandbox in and I think it’s wonderful and always have a laugh when people wail and gnash their teeth and go “what happened to my boy’s career” well guess what bubs, they adapted and evolved to the ever shifting landscape of media entertainment and it’s natural. But for some reason Cage fits this B world like a glove and I was aghast to find that looking at his IMDb I’m woefully behind on the recent output, which I plan to fix in these coming weeks and do a series on the wild and wacky stuff he’s been up to, which I’ll dub the “Nic Cage B-Grade Cinematic Universe.”
First up is a slick flick called Hungry Rabbit Jumps from back in 2011, and the American distribution system just has to dumb down innovative titles like that into patronizing nonsense like ‘Seeking Justice’ which they re-titled this as for stateside release and it doesn’t help its case. It’s a fairly straightforward revenge/conspiracy/crime thriller that benefits a lot from the presence of Guy Pearce as the mysterious pseudo-antagonist. Cage plays a regular dude whose wife (January Jones, way younger than Nic in a sneaky trend in people casted as his spouses) is assaulted, and soon after they are approached by Pearce and his fancy suit, who offers to find and kill the assailant for them in return for a small ‘favour,’ collected somewhere down the line one day. They accept but when it comes time for that favour things get sticky and Pearce expects Cage to murder a man who he tells him is a no-good pedophile but really might be someone else. This all leads to the uncovering of a vast secret organization of well placed vigilantes who use the coded phrase ‘hungry rabbit jumps’ to make themselves known and Cage finds himself now intrinsically linked to their operation whether he likes it or not. It’s an interesting premise given the fairly pedestrian treatment but Nic and Guy get some nice tense moments to spar in and there’s enough action to keep pulses above flatline. I still wish they kept that title ‘Hungry Rabbit Jumps’ instead of fucking lame ass ‘Seeking Justice’ though like… come on man, learn how to read a room and support original flourishes like that instead of slapping it with a latter day Seagal level moniker. Three Cages out of five for this one.
The first time I saw Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (when it first came out) it was lost on me, I felt detached from it, unable to connect and, dare I say, bored. That’s what revisits are for though and the second time I found rich psychological detail, achingly beautiful character relationships, beautifully burnished cinematography and one tantalizing Rubik’s cube of a narrative that, yes, is still tough for me to comprehensively understand but is rich in treasures of emotional depth, poetic tragedy and minuscule splashes of darkest humour amongst the sardonic helpings of dry espionage. Gary Oldman is sly and terrific in a study of low key tenacity as George Smiley, a veteran MI6 bigwig tasked by twitchy Mission Control (John Hurt, brilliant as ever) to find a decades long Soviet mole amidst their ranks. It could be one of a few higher ups, played by the prolific likes of Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik and others. It proves to be quite the hurdle as this traitor has burrowed himself so deeply within their ranks that he himself is perhaps confused what side he belongs to anymore. Smiley uses a rookie field operative (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent) to sniff around and is carefully watched by a regional honcho played by Simon McBurney, a very unsettling little fellow who can turn the simple act of buttering dry toast into a devilish interrogation tactic and is the last dude you want to be ‘carefully watched’ by. The great Mark Strong has a wonderful extended bit as a long burned out former operative with deep ties to MI6 and a haunted past, his arc is very special here. My favourite aspect of the film has to be Tom Hardy as a double agent who falls hard for a mysterious Russian girl (Svetlana Khodvhenkova) he’s surveilling. He’s the perfectly tragic example of a hopeless romantic who discovers he’s gravely in the wrong line of work and wants out before it’s too late. All of these characters move about greyest London and other parts of Europe like chess pieces, and indeed the metaphor becomes literal when Hurt’s Control uses an actual chessboard to illustrate to Smiley just who he’s dealing with and how formidable each potential opponent might just be. The film is grey, drab, washed out, lived in and wearily opaque to evoke a paranoid, sad postwar setting but despite the inherent gloom drenching everything I found the aesthetic to be quite strikingly beautiful. Same goes for the themes and emotional content: these opaque characters hold their emotions close to the chest and as such appear icy, ambiguous and heartless yet it’s beneath that the we see their humanity, not in dialogue or direct action but in glances, quiet moments, slow revelations and half noticed interactions between words. Oldman, Strong, Firth and Hardy are the four standouts in an impossibly well tailored cast of deep cut talents, they’re the four legs of the table to watch for in order to ascertain the strange elixir of this film’s essence and get the most of it. Just don’t expect to absorb everything the first time round, this is a deeply layered, multifaceted, strange beast of a film that likely takes many viewings (this was only my second) to fully settle in. See if you can catch references to everything from John Carpenter’s The Thing to 007 to the Coen Brothers to even the bible while also soaking up the pure class and originality it possesses all its own. Great film.
I don’t know what it is about Adam McKay’s The Other Guys but it’s one of those comedies I’ve seen literally over fifty times and it’s never not funny, in fact it gets even more fucking hilarious with each new viewing. It’s essentially a sendup of the buddy cop genre starring a perpetually cranky Mark Wahlberg and a half mad Will Ferrell, but it’s also so much more than that in ways you don’t initially see coming. I think it’s the lack of script and encouragement from everyone involved to rely on loopy improvisation that works so well for me here.. it’s like for every scene they tossed away all the scripted takes, kept all the ‘end of the shooting day giggles’ material and deranged bloopers and just loaded that shit up into the final cut, which is a stroke of mad scientist genius. Wahlberg and Ferrell are Allen and Terry, two hapless NYPD detectives constantly living under the shadow of a couple hotshot alpha badasses played briefly by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson until.. well let’s just say they get their moment to shine, as Ice-T dryly narrates the action when he feels the need to pipe in. They get involved in an impossibly intricate conspiracy involving diamond heists, a corrupt hedge fund guru (Steve Coogan almost walks off with the film), an Aussie private security prick (Ray Stevenson, priceless), the power-ball lottery and so much convolution that it’s taken me this many viewings to get that yes, it indeed does have a plot that makes sense when you work it all out but that’s besides the point anyways. It’s almost like Naked Gun level shenanigans where it doesn’t quite take place in the real world but an almost surreal comedic version of it. Just beholding Allen and Terry play ‘Bad Cop Bad Cop,’ get their car hijacked by a coven of perverted homeless dudes called ‘Dirty Mike & The Boys,’ recount Allen’s life as a college pimp, the precinct goons convincing Allen to do a ‘Desk Pop’ and so much more is enough to realize that you’re not in Buddy Comedy Kansas anymore and you’re gonna see some shit that defies genre expectations. I love when Steve Coogan is like “I’ll give you each a million dollars to let me go, and it’s not a bribe.” Ferrell retorts: “Of course it’s a bribe, you’re offering us money to not do our jobs”. Coogan looks him dead in the eye and sincerely reiterates: “It’s not a bribe.” Fucking gets me every time man. The cast is peppered with so many effective oddball performances I couldn’t mention them all here but be on the lookout for Eva Mandes, Rob Riggle, Josef Sommer, Brett Gelman, Derek Jeter, Damon Wayans, Bobby Cannavale, Anne Heche, Andy Buckley, Natalie Zea, Brooke Shields, Rosie Perez and more. Best of all has to be Michael Keaton as their police captain, a loopy fellow who also works at Bed, Bath & Beyond for some reason and quotes TLC songs multiple times throughout the film but pretends he has no idea who they are, it’s a brilliant bit of knowingly subtle supporting work that also gets me every time, as does the film overall. This one just exists outside the box and does it’s own thing, getting abstract, bizarre and frequently ‘WTF’ to the point it feels like something by SNL at their absolute weirdest or… I don’t even know what to compare McKay’s aesthetic to, but I’ll say that this is likely in the top ten funniest comedies I’ve ever seen. Aim for the bushes!
There are so many ideas, myths, motifs, vignettes, episodes, characters and ideas swirling around in Tim Burton’s Big Fish it almost feels like several movies collided together to make their own sweet, sunny mixture and I love that feeling. It’s like a postcard perfect funhouse where you never know what you might get and some people saw a pacing problem or lack of focus in that regard but for me it’s this wonderful wellspring of creativity, visual audacity and fairytale lyricism. It’s also told from the perspective of a rascal who is notorious for making up wild stories so the narratively kaleidoscopic nature of the film seems very appropriate. Edward Bloom is one of the strangest Tim Burton characters to ever grace the screen, a magnetic individual played as a young man by beaming, idealistic Ewan McGregor and as an old fellow by wisecracking, lovable Albert Finney. Edward loves to tell stories, larger than life anecdotal adventures that he regaled his young son with throughout childhood, stories that couldn’t possibly be true.. right? As Edward grows up he leaves a town that just wasn’t big enough for him and meets many wonderful and strange characters along the way including a giant (Matthew McGrory), a poet turned bank robber (Steve Buscemi), a mermaid (Bevin Kaye), a reclusive witch (Helena Bonham Carter) a circus ringmaster (Danny Devito, scene stealing like nobody’s business) with a supernatural secret and eventually the love of his life Sandra, played as a young woman by the excellent Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and later by Jessica Lange. The story finds an emotional core in the relationship between Edward and his son Will (Billy Crudup), a realist who resents being brought up amidst a bunch of tall tales and just wants, along with his wife (Marion Cotillard, lovely), to finally get to know his father as he is passing of terminal illness. The stories are besides the point here and as one character notes, at some point a man becomes the legends he tells simply by embodying them, and when it comes time for the narrative to tell us whether or not these tales are even true it hardly matters because the film has been so honest with us in the human connections we see unfolding. This film sits apart in Burton’s career because of how emotionally affecting it is, not largely focused on effects and makeup like he often chooses but crafted with its heart firmly planted on a bedrock of believable humanity. There’s whimsy, style and special effects galore mind you, all excellently, wonderfully done.. but the core of what makes this film so special lies in the final twenty minutes or so where we see a rich, cathartic final act that always brings me to tears. Edward Bloom may have told wild tales his whole life and Will must reconcile that they were just a part of who his father was, and that the greatest story in his life was the family he raised. It’s a beautiful, oddball, postcard pretty, occasionally surreal yet ultimately down to earth and deeply felt piece of storytelling.
In Robert Altman‘s stunning, dreamily haunting piece of anti western melancholia McCabe & Mrs. Miller, two lost souls wander out from unseen former lives into the rugged, barely tamed Canadian Pacific Northwest and attempt to carve out their slice of enterprise from a vast, unforgiving environment. Warren Beatty’s John McCabe is a shrewd yet caustic entrepreneur whose sense of romanticism is dwindling like the stars at dawn, a man who plans to capitalize on the wants and desires of the townsfolk of frontier settlement Presbyterian Church by tent-poling a successful local whorehouse. Julie Christie’s Constance Miller is a forlorn, sharp tongued opportunist bereft of any wistful innocence, her piercing, deep set blue eyes peering out from a thicket of gingerbread curls, scanning the horizon for lucrative endeavours. Both of them seem to arrive in the Northwest as if from another dimension; no backstory save for unfounded rumours, no goals except for capitalist monopoly and no sense of wonder or lyricism save for the few shiny flecks that haven’t been rinded down by the harshness of their lives, like mountains plundered for precious gold until not but scant flakes remain amongst weathered, weary crags. They team up as any person with a good head for business will concede to do, and before they know it they’re making a pretty penny… until big money mining interests try to muscle them out. Altman shows here how capitalism was a precursor to violence and corruption even in the early days of this continent and is successful in getting across his themes but for me the real treasures of this film lie in cinematography, tangible sense of character and mood. Christie and Beatty probably give career best performances as two hardened pioneers of commerce who collectively arrive at the end of each of their respective journeys in the saddest, mournfully poetic fashions imaginable. I wish I knew these two individuals before the world made them the way they are and the snowdrifts settled into the final acts of their arc because they’re two wonderful, well rounded and unique characters. Filling out a solid supporting cast are the likes of the late Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, William Devane, John Schlick, Michael Murphy, a very young Shelley Duvall and more. Altman uses unbelievably evocative wilderness photography to tell story and several aching, poignant songs by Leonard Cohen to bookend his film. It’s tough to capture the essence of this thing in a review, one has to let it wash over you, let it murmur in your ear for two hours as wood doors slam, horse drawn carriages trundle through muddy streets, wind whispers through tree lines, characters move in and out with organic disorganization like moths to and from firelight and McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s sad, introspective, beautifully ponderous story plays out. Sensational film.
I love films that show human beings close to nature, eccentric conservationists and bold, idiosyncratic individuals who value the lives of animals and the wilderness above other humans, industry or infrastructure. Philippe Mora’s A Breed Apart is a fantastic example of this, of one reclusive army veteran with severe PTSD and a tragic past named Jim Malden (the late great Rutger Hauer) who lives alone on remote Cherokee island off the coast of North Carolina, devoting his life to the care, companionship and protection of birds and any other creatures he finds. He awkwardly flirts with the local general store owner (Kathleen Turner, switching up her smoky voiced socialite persona for something more casual and earthy) and bonds with her kid. He is fiercely protective of his land and the animals that dwell there to the point of inflicting mortal wounds with a crossbow onto two idiotic, nasty hunters (Brion James and John Dennis Johnston) who shoot birds illegally. Trouble arrives in the form of rock climbing adventurer Mike Walker (Powers Boothe) who has been hired by a weird, rich collector of rare bird eggs (Donald Pleasance channeling the Penguin from Batman) to pilfer the nest of rare bald eagles on Jim’s island, rendering that species extinct. Mike isn’t a malicious or cruel man and admits that the prospect bothers him but he’s been promised two hundred grand for his troubles that will go to funding an expedition in China that is very important to him. We then have this extreme battle of wills governed by moral principles, with both actors doing phenomenal jobs. Hauer is rugged and intense as ever, hinting at a mournful past and winning us over with his compassion for animals, whether washing oil spills off of a bird’s coat or playing with cute black bear cubs in his epic tree fort. Boothe is cavalier and brash at first but we get a sense of moral centre in him as his arc goes on, this could almost be considered ‘the other environmental protection film’ he did in the 80’s and played a good guy in alongside John Boorman’s masterful The Emerald Forest. It’s a a joy to see the two actors onscreen together and a neat precursor to Sin City two decades later, where they don’t share any scenes but play brothers. Now this film had a rough time in post production, many of the reels being lost, what they’ve done to piece it together works for the most part but there are a few pacing issues that aren’t easy to brush off, as well as some really cheesy sex romp stuff but I guess it was the 80’s after all. Still, it’s a beautiful film overall, looks terrific on the Shout Factory Blu Ray, has a wonderful electronic score by Maurice Gibb and is about something that I’m very passionate towards: the care and conservation of natural habitats at all costs, and the dire consequences befalling any greedy piece of shit person who tries to exploit them. Very good film.
I never got why the Johnny English films didn’t get out there more or endure as classics because they’re pure gold. I mean if we’re talking franchises that spoof James Bond then Austin Powers kind of just reigns supreme as a given, but English is next up in line for my money, thanks to the sheer unfiltered cyclone of comedic star-power that is Rowan Atkinson. The first film is an all timer for me, minted platinum I’ve seen it so many times. The second is admittedly not as strong but the third outing, titled Johnny English Strikes Again, finds its way back to the magic of the first and is an absolute howling joy. He’s just so friggin perfect, stupid by way of being suave as perennial fuck up English, the type of guy that no one ever in real life would trust with a mission but in the satirical world of cinema espionage he constantly finds himself somehow employed. This one steps up his level of idiocy to near biblical heights in the very first scene: in hysterical collective cameos we see Charles Dance, Edward Fox and Michael Gambon as three legendary MI6 agents hauled out of retirement to assess a cyber attack that blew the cover of agents in the field. Naturally Johnny is also somewhere in the office and naturally he causes some colossal mishap that kills all three in the first ten minutes of the film. Three seasoned veterans of cinema, dispatched before the opening credits, that cracked me up so hard lol. Emma Thompson is great as the loopy section chief tasked with babysitting Johnny on his hectic escapades, Ben Miller returns as trusty, long suffering sidekick Bough and Olga Kurylenko is fun as a slinky Russian double agent who finds Johnny’s lack of self awareness charmingly quaint. The antics in this one are especially fun, with two distinct highlights: Johnny tries out a cutting edge VR room meant to help with surveillance, gets so disoriented that he runs about in a mad dash of confused violence all over London that culminates in the beatdown of a cafe owner with two baguettes. In the film’s funniest bit he accidentally swallows some secret pill that I’m pretty sure was just raw amphetamines and comes blasting out of his hotel room like a speed freak while Darude sandstorm plays loudly and he dances in a club literally all night until they turn the lights on and kick him out. These films might be too silly or whatever for some but there’s just something so winning about Atkinson’s presence, his mannerisms, constant fuck ups and the pure, self assured swagger he adopts that becomes hysterically ironic when we see what an actual moron he really is. Good times and a terrific cap to the trilogy.
James Horner was a totemic titan of Hollywood musical composition, one of the absolute greats. If you needed unparalleled orchestral grandeur, primally elemental accents to landscape and nature, rousing battle cry pieces of flowing, melodic passages he was your guy and crafted some of the most prolific, memorable scores in cinema. He left us far too soon in a tragic 2015 plane crash but his work lives on eternal, and these are my top ten personal favourite original scores from this wonderful artist!
10. Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs
He goes gritty, smoky and jazzy for this classic buddy cop flick, keeping the excitement somehow both light and dangerous in his work. Favourite track: the exuberant main titles with faint, pleasant steel drums that suit the breezy San Francisco vibe.
9. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart
Beautiful bagpipes pull at the heartstrings and sweeping strings roll over the Scottish highlands in this classic historical epic. Favourite track: Can’t beat that main title.
8. James Cameron’s Aliens
His composition is eerie, badass and mirrors the darkly lit corridors of creepy space stations here, getting appropriately intense once the creatures make themselves known. Favourite track: ‘Bishop’s Countdown’, a master class in impossibly suspenseful tension and epic, cathartic release.
7. Ron Howard’s Willow
Swashbuckling high fantasy is the musical tone in this beloved, refreshingly dark and slightly underrated children’s adventure film. Favourite track: ‘Escape from the Tavern’, a playful, jaunty piece that accompanies Val Kilmer in drag and Warwick Davis as they sled down a snowy mountain on a shield at full throttle.
6. Edward Zwick’s Legends Of The Fall
Another historical epic sees James compose some of his most achingly beautiful and richly melodramatic music yet, compositions that sweep over the rugged Montana terrain that is home to an early 1900’s family and many struggles they encounter. Favourite track: the main theme, utilizing brass and pan flutes to evoke a strong emotional connection to the material, setting and characters.
5. Joe Johnston’s Jumanji
Those drums man, they still haunt me. This is a playful, sweet natured score that dips into appropriately scary and primal places. Favourite track: ‘A New World’, a lovely piece that has a sympathy for the protagonist’s tough arc and a great sense of small town character.
4. James Cameron’s Titanic
This is just so iconic, and probably the most recognized collaboration between Horner and Cameron who maintained a strong working relationship over several films. Deeply romantic, wistful and reverent, this score has it all and is pretty much time capsule worthy. Favourite track: tough pick but ‘Rose instrumental’ just always gets me in the feels.
3. James Cameron’s Avatar
Here he ducks a typical SciFi sounding score for something far more down to earth and elemental, with tons of affecting vocals and a breathtaking auditory scope. Favourite track: ‘Jake’s First Flight’ … just try listening to that without getting goosebumps and little spikes of actual adrenaline. Pure magic.
2. Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy
He absolutely nails the Greek tragedy aesthetic in this very underrated, beautiful and heartbreaking epic. Using vocals and battle drum percussion theres a real sense of approaching threat as war literally looms on the horizon and a sense of deep romantic regret from both factions. Favourite track: ‘3200 Years Ago’ sets the mood like no other.
1. Ron Howard’s The Missing
This may look like a weird first choice but it’s an underrated, gorgeous horror western and James’s music is stark, eerie, gruesome and suits the haunting mood just perfectly. Favourite track: ‘New Mexico, 1885’ ushers in the spooky atmosphere nicely.